Wednesday, 30 June 2010

Visit to Bridgetown Prison, Barbados, 1837

As part of my research I have been looking at the development of prisons in the British empire as well as in England.  I came across this account by John Scoble of a visit to Bridgetown Prison, Barbados in 1837.

From the council chamber we proceeded into the jail yard, where were collected a large number of negros employed in breaking stones. The male negros are required to break thirty baskets a day – the women twenty five baskets a day. The stones are very hard and the hammers very soft; the consequence is, that it is a most laborious operation. In failure of their appointed tasks, they are flogged both male and female! This I learned on the spot. Among the women thus employed was one very far advanced in pregnancy. I was very much pleased to learn that some of the more powerful negros would break a few more baskets than their required amount, and give their surplus to the weaker, to save them a flogging. From this part of the yard we proceeded to the back of the prison to inspect the tread-mill. It was going when we reached it – fifteen male negros of different ages, from boys to men, were on it, and the cat was in constant requisition on their sides, shoulders, and legs, to keep them up to their work; and even when the miserable creatures kept step properly, if they did not tread down they were flogged. On the top of the tread mill were a number of negros who secured the arms of those that were too weak to hold on by the rail. The usual time for them to be on the tread mill is ten minutes. From the mill we proceeded to the jail. The first room we entered was about thirty by thirty five feet, in which one hundred and ten negros are at present obliged to herd together from four in the afternoon until next morning; how they can live in such an atmosphere as must be created by so large a number of persons being congregated together in a tropical climate, I cannot tell. – The next apartment visited was about half the size. There were confined in it thirty five males, committed for various felonies. The jailer informed me that sometimes negros were incarcerated there twelve months previous to trial, and are then discharged without it. Often when it is inconvenient for the prosecutor to appear, or he does not choose to appear, cases are adjourned to the next Sessions, a period of six months. How iniquitous a system is this! We returned back to the tread-mill. The women were then on; such a sight I never saw before; they were dressed in coarse dowlas, descending from the hips like trowsers, below the knees, and upwards to the bosom, leaving the neck exposed, fitting close round the body. The arms from below the shoulders bare, the legs bare also. The heads shaved quite close, with a handkerchief tied round them. They were up for ten minutes, and had been up during the morning four times before, and were to be put up twice after we left. No difference whatever was made between them as to the amount of punishment. When we arrived, they had been up about three minutes, and the brutal driver was flogging them with the cat with as much severity as he had previously flogged the men; he cut them wherever he listed, and as often as he pleased. We were dreadfully shocked, but determined to witness the whole proceeding. On the mill there was a mulatto woman, perhaps about thirty, dreadfully exhausted – indeed she could not step any more, although she had been on only a few minutes.

The driver flogged her repeatedly, and she as often made the attempt to tread the mill, but nature was worn out. She was literally suspended by the bend of the elbow of one arm, a negro holding down the wrist at the top of the mill for some minutes; and her poor legs knocking against the revolving steps of the mill until her blood marked them. There she hung groaning. and anon receiving a cut from the driver, to which she appeared almost indifferent. When the ten minutes were up, the negro above released her arm, and she fell on the floor utterly unable to support herself, and at last managed to stagger out of the place. Her sufferings must have been terrible. But she was not the only one who suffered. A black girl, apparently about eighteen, was equally exhausted. When we arrived, she was moaning piteously. Her moans were answered by the cut of the whip. She endeavoured again and again to tread the mill, but was utterly unable. She had lost all power, and hung, in the same helpless way with the mulatto woman, suspended by the left arm, held on by the wrist by a negro above. The bend of the arm passed over the rail, and the wrist was held down tightly, so that she could not alter her position, or get the least ease by moving. It was most affecting to hear her appeals to the driver, ‘Sweet massa, do pity me – do sweet massa, pity me – my arm is broke.’ Her entreaties to be relieved were answered by cuts from the whip, and threats that did she not cease to make a noise, he would have her down and flog her. The fear that he would carry this threat into execution led her to suppress her feelings as well as she could. I then engaged the attention of the driver in a conversation and managed to place him towards me in such a position that he could not see the mill, and by a multitude of questions, occupied about two minutes of the time, until the glass had run down; thus saving the poor creature any more flogging. When let go, she sunk on the ground exhausted, but managed shortly after to crawl away from the scene of her suffering. Dr. Lloyd and I went shortly after to that part of the mill where the women are kept; the whole of them were in a state of profuse perspiration, and scarcely able to speak. We examined the legs of the mulatto woman, and found them shockingly bruised, the skin in one part about the size of a dollar torn away. The poor black girl had lost the skin off the bend of her arm, and was suffering dreadfully from the cramp. In reference to the latter female, I observed the driver cut her across the naked ankles, leaving the mark of his cat visible. I spoke a few kind words, which greatly affected them. Thus then, it appears, that in Barbados women committed to the tread mill are catted ad libitum – the driver's feelings alone being the rule which governs him in the use of his scourge. During the whole time these scenes were transacting, the Barbados Legislature were holding their Sessions within thirty yards of the tread-mill.

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